First published in 1967, Sven Holm’s speculative dystopian novella, Termush, is the latest release in the Faber Editions series, an expertly-curated selection of rediscovered gems dedicated to showcasing radical literary voices from around the world. It’s the third book I’ve read from this imprint, and I would thoroughly recommend all three: Mrs Caliban, a subversive feminist fable by the American writer Rachel Ingalls; Maud Martha, an exquisitely-crafted portrait of a young black American woman by the poet Gwendolyn Brooks; and now the brilliant Termush, a deeply unnerving slice of post-apocalyptic dystopia that still feels wildly relevant today.
The novella’s premise is a fascinating one. A nuclear apocalypse has decimated the country (and possibly the whole world), wiping out large swathes of the population. Nevertheless, an elite coastal hotel named Termush remains untouched by the disaster, complete with trained staff, an armed security team, radiation shelters, access to clean water, food and other luxury provisions. Medical support is also on hand, courtesy of two doctors and a supply of medicines. Moreover, there is access to a luxurious yacht, should the hotel guests and staff need to flee from the resort at some point.
Holed up at Termush are several wealthy guests, privileged individuals who paid for their reservations in advance – an insurance policy, so to speak, in case of a global catastrophe. Holm’s novella focuses on the aftermath of the apocalypse, reporting what happens within the Termush community once it is deemed ‘safe’ for the survivors to emerge from the resort’s radiation shelters, ready to occupy their tastefully decorated rooms. This account is relayed by an unnamed narrator in a cool, self-controlled style, a technique that gives the story a timeless, universal feel – almost as if it could be happening virtually anywhere in the world at any time in the last 80 years.
As the guests remain cocooned in the relative safety of the hotel, toxic dust swirls around the elaborate sculpture park in the resort’s gardens. Security men patrol the site, removing dead birds and other unpleasant sights from the guests’ field of vision while guarding the complex against outsiders, who increase in number and desperation as the story unfolds.
Holm seems particularly interested in the psychological impact of disasters; for instance, what happens to our moral codes, guiding values and behaviours towards others when familiar societal structures are destabilised or destroyed. Moreover, he illustrates quite brilliantly how specific societal constructs are designed to favour the privileged and the wealthy, often to the detriment of humanity as a whole – something that chimes all too horribly with many of our current government’s policies, from the balance of taxes across various social groups to the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers.
As the story unfolds, the hotel guests must grapple with various moral dilemmas, such as what to do with other injured survivors who turn up seeking food, medical treatment and shelter. Should they show compassion and allow these individuals to be admitted to the complex, even though they haven’t paid for the privilege, or should they turn them away? And if new members are allowed to join the group, will there be enough food and medicine to go around? Could they pose any risks to the existing guests, either medically (through potential contamination), physically (from their presence within the group) or emotionally (from any psychological impact)?
We expected to find a world completely annihilated. This was what we insured ourselves against when we enrolled at Termush.
No one thought about protecting himself against the survivors or their demands on us. We paid money to go on living in the same way that one once paid health insurance; we bought the commodity called survival, and according to all existing contracts no one has the right to take it from us or make demands upon it. (p. 39)
Soon, the hotel management starts withholding certain developments from the guests for fear of unsettling them. New arrivals are ushered in under cover and kept apart from the existing guests; reports of the dead are suppressed; and news of the hotel’s reconnaissance team is patchy at best. All of this adds to the narrator’s deep unease as he grapples with the changing shape of his world – a world that seems to be turning in on itself as the days drift by.
If the hotel management see themselves as a protective shield between the guests and the outside world, whenever that world is revealed as menacing, they are acting in direct contradiction of their terms of reference. To be a guarantee of help in a situation which may well turn out to be total chaos, according to the unhelpful wording of the brochure, does not mean that to conceal the true facts becomes a duty. (p. 16)
Holm excels in creating a sense of creeping dread, combining a tantalising blend of the frighteningly real and the enigmatically surreal. The narrator’s perceptive observations on developments at Termush are intertwined with a series of visions – haunting, dreamlike images that seem deeply unsettling, like harbingers from the future foreshadowing tragic events.
We see the turtle lay eggs and burrow into the earth, where it dies of thirst; birds fall out of their nests without using their wings; the foal licks stones while the mare’s udder is bursting with milk; the goat flays its kid and tries to chew its flesh; the bee turns its sting on itself; the corn starts to grow downwards and the roots of the trees rise up to search for water from the air. (p. 104)
It’s something that makes Holm’s novella seem terrifyingly prescient, chiming strongly with 21st-century concerns surrounding climate change, global pandemics, biological weapons and other viable threats to our current existence.
Moreover, these feelings of tension and destabilisation are accentuated by the relentless march of fear. As the days slip by, various events affect the psychological well-being of the group, especially its most vulnerable members. For example, when the narrator learns that one of the guests has fled the complex, he reflects on the reasons behind this escape, clearly identifying a broader undercurrent of anxiety.
Without talking about it, perhaps without being conscious of it, he reacted against this enclave, this closed compartment cut off from the world. He had not wished to or had not been in a position to resume the interrupted game of make-believe that nothing had happened. He felt cramped by the restrictions of the place, the rhythm of the day, the petty bickering at the meetings and the unacknowledged fear which rears its head when we are down in the shelters, and which, like the nakedness, we conceal. (p. 54)
It would be unfair of me to reveal how the story plays out, but suffice it to say that the future looks bleak. While the narrator and the hotel’s chief medic show more humanity to the injured wanderers than other members of the group, thoughts of self-protection and preservation are rife, leading to acts of selfishness, differentiation/segregation, and a palpable fear of outsiders.
The novella comes with an excellent introduction by the critically-acclaimed science-fiction writer Jeff VanderMeer, who describes Termush as a bridge between the ‘return-to-normalcy’ of ‘disaster cosies’ by writers such as John Wyndham and the ‘extravagant, mind-bending dystopias of J. G. Ballard’ – an analysis that feels suitably astute.
In summary, then, Termush is a wildly prescient piece of speculative fiction, a deeply unsettling exploration of societal breakdown in the wake of a catastrophe. A fascinating addition to the Faber Editions list – an imprint that continues to explore a wide variety of styles, voices and genres to genuinely thrilling effect.
(My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.)